The Myth of A-Players




The current talent market is full of contradictions. Candidates getting multiple offers while companies conduct sweeping layoffs. People “quiet quitting” in droves while there’s more opportunity than ever for flexibility. Yet one thing hasn’t changed: the mistaken belief that hiring “A-players” will solve everything.

Steve Jobs famously insisted on hiring A-players. This philosophy had enormous influence on the hiring practices of Silicon Valley and beyond, and on the surface, it makes sense. A-players are game changers, making good things happen wherever they go. They work harder, think smarter, and have better skills than their B- and C-player peers. This is the conventional wisdom about stars: they simply outperform everyone else, no matter the circumstances. But what if that wisdom is wrong? What if the whole notion of an “A-Player” is not only misplaced, but dangerously off-base? 

Ron Johnson, who was hired by Jobs to lead the team responsible for creating the look and feel of the Apple Store, pioneered the Genius Bar. It was a revolutionary way to help customers feel informed and taken care of in a comfortable environment. It was a striking exception to the failure of the retail climate that Apple’s competitors experienced, and the Genius Bar was wildly successful. When Johnson left Apple on top of the business world, he accepted an offer to be CEO of J.C. Penney in 2011. He didn’t set out to improve, but to transform. He rejected testing his ideas – including eliminating the well-known discounts, coupons, and frequent sales – before rolling them out to all 1,000+ stores. Johnson summarily stated, “We didn’t test at Apple.”

Johnson was at J.C. Penney for 17 months. Financial press called it “one of the most aggressively unsuccessful tenures in retail history.” Ron Johnson, vaunted A-player, was ignobly fired after less than two years on the job. 

Was Ron Johnson an A-player, or was Jobs just good at picking talent for him and Apple? What if the Ron Johnson story isn’t a shining example of the A-player advantage, but merely another in a long line of cautionary tales about the way we think about talent?

Time and time again, Jobs’ “A-player” message gets spun into something else. It becomes shorthand for: don’t examine what the context requires, or how a person might fit into that reality. Focus on skills and results. Find go-getters, preferably Ivy Leaguers who have crushed it. But as Ron Johnson showed us, an A-player for one organization is not always an A-player for another. 
The myth of A-players is pervasive, and blinds us to the reality of how different people can excel in some contexts and completely fail in others. It’s a story that has been played out countlessly.

In 2004, Nike brought on William Perez, star CEO of SC Johnson, to succeed aging founder Phil Knight. The culture at SC Johnson was built on inclusive respect and family values; Nike’s culture showcased irreverence, exclusivity, and performance. Perez’s talents that led to success at SC Johnson were deft financial management and ability to juggle multiple brands efficiently; at Nike, he would need to predict the next fashionable trend for a single brand juggernaut, something that called for very different talents. Perez was summarily fired after 13 months on the job… Jeff Smisek, former “king of the skies,” went from star CEO at Continental Airlines to disgraced CEO at United. Marissa Mayer, a superstar at the hugely successful Google, was in danger of failure at the helm of the long-struggling Yahoo. Richard Thoman, star CFO at IBM, was ousted from Xerox after 13 months. Even Steve Jobs’ “golden touch” couldn’t create success during his first tenure at Apple or at NeXT Computer, the company he founded afterwards.

Study after study shows that transferring what you know from one context to another is difficult and unreliable. The individuals above aren’t outliers, they’re just some of the more familiar examples of a common phenomenon. None of them “lost their touch” or were exposed as frauds – they changed settings. Skills are more specific, and more difficult to transfer, than many of us would like to believe. You can’t divorce performance outcomes from context. Why? Because the context is the thing you’re actually good at.

So the important question is, what is context? And why is it such a critical determinant of performance? In companies, context is the sum total of the conditions and circumstances – both internal and external – in which the business operates. One of the most important aspects of the context, and one that has an outsized impact on whether any particular person will fail or succeed within an organization, is the organization’s culture.

“Culture” is thrown around with various implied meanings. At its core, the culture of a business is what people believe are acceptable behaviors – i.e., which behaviors will be rewarded and which punished. It stems from the organization’s purpose – the reason it exists – and from deep-seated, fundamental beliefs and biases of the organization’s leaders. Some cultures are oriented towards maximizing profitability, and therefore reward efficiency and predictability. Others are oriented towards achieving high growth, and reward agility and competitiveness. Still others are oriented towards solving hard problems, and reward innovation and insight. Whether or not it is made explicit, every organization has a culture. It is built and reinforced through thousands of daily signals in casual conversation and in the boardroom: promotions and firings, bonus checks and salary adjustments, pats on the shoulder and email admonitions.

For some, those culture signals make sense. The culture fits seamlessly with their own beliefs, biases, and compulsions. It brings out their best selves, they are firing on all cylinders, the path forward is clear, and work is both highly productive and consistently enjoyable. These people are likely to be A-players in that culture. But for other people, those same culture signals don’t make sense at all. The culture clashes with how they view the world. Their instincts push them to respond to cues in one way but the culture demands something different. They become stuck in spirals of confusion and anxiety. They are far from being at their best, and frequently make poor decisions. These people are B- or C-players in that culture.

Apple’s culture prized creating beautiful and elegant new solutions to problems the customer didn’t even know they had. This culture permeated everything, from how products were designed to how meetings were held. J.C. Penney, on the other hand, had a culture in which predictability was king, and anything that might alter the ecosystem of the existing customer base was considered destabilizing. Small wonder that Johnson was an A-player at Apple, yet flamed out spectacularly at J.C. Penney.

Culture differences are often a big part of why A-players become C-players, and mediocre performers become stars. But culture isn’t the only aspect of context that matters. Another key aspect is the design of the role that people are in. When someone’s responsibilities match what they find meaningful and purposeful (their passion) and what they are naturally good at and improve at fastest (their talent), they will inevitably produce excellence. But much too often, an A-player in a role that highly leverages their passion and talent is then asked to take on a role that doesn’t. 

Context encompasses a great many other things in addition to culture and role design. The pace and predictability of changes in the market, brand DNA, funding and resources, ownership and management structure, stage in the life cycle of the business, regulatory scrutiny, activeness of unions, smisstate of the overall economy…the list goes on. Yet the myth steadily holds that A-players are stars, independent of the context. 
Here’s the truth: Jobs wasn’t a great CEO. He was a great CEO in the context that Apple was operating in at the turn of the century. Smisek wasn’t a great airline CEO – he was a great CEO for Continental’s context. Perez was a great CEO for SC Johnson, Schrempp for Daimler-Benz. They were people who, like so many others, experienced both contexts they were good at and bad at. 

That is why the way that many of us interpret Steve Jobs’ advice about A-players is so potentially damaging. People have come to believe that you need to find these universal winners, and that everyone else is intrinsically inferior in some way. That just isn’t true. 

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